Colton Fehr: A Musician's Journey in Academia

Graduate student Colton Fehr is completing his PhD thesis at UAlberta Law

Brea Elford - 03 May 2018

Colton Fehr's PhD journey began on the road, in the back seat of a van, his days spent juggling research into digital technologies and governing frameworks, his nights spent on stage with a bass guitar in hand.

Fehr is a musician, most recently as the bass player for Saskatchewan-based band Autopilot. He's also a widely-published academic and PhD student at the University of Alberta Faculty of Law.

For now, Fehr is putting music aside to focus on academics, though he said the two roles aren't that different.

"No matter what I do, it's my goal to captivate my audience. I'm always excited to talk about law and to hear from those who attend a class or a presentation; I look forward to learning from them as much as they (hopefully) can learn from me," he said.

Fehr is in his second of four years pursuing a PhD that focuses on law and technology. Under the supervision of professor Steven Penney, his thesis, tentatively titled "Governing Privacy in the Digital Age," explores the evolution of digital evidence as a complex legal terrain, and looks at how courts and legislatures are reacting to rapidly changing technologies.

"No one has really undertaken a full study of that question in Canada, or done much of a comparative study to see what other countries are doing. I am looking at ways to get courts and legislatures to rise up to the challenge in a little more effective manner," he said.

Penney echoed Fehr's statement, saying although much has been written about the threat digital technologies pose to both individual privacy and law enforcement's ability to combat crime, Fehr's dissertation research "promises to provide answers to a critical question that has been largely ignored: whether it is the courts or Parliament that should take the lead in regulating police powers intruding on digital privacy."

"Colton's dissertation will examine the strengths and weaknesses of each institution and outline a framework for deciding which types of privacy-protecting rules should be initiated by courts and which by Parliament. It promises to provide guidance to both institutions on how to think about the governance of privacy in the digital era and how they might work together to achieve an optimal balance between privacy and crime control interests," he said.

The successful completion of a PhD is an extensive process. Fehr began by reading the top 40 most relevant books in the field. Then he read about 100 articles related to the topic and countless case law studies, synthesizing his findings into an in-depth annotated bibliography.

That's all before submitting the major written proposal, and on top of the three courses required for PhD students. With those steps complete, now he can begin writing his thesis.

"It's a lot of work, but professor Penny has been very supportive, encouraging me to continue publishing articles in-between my thesis work," he said.

Fehr has published articles in the Journal of International Criminal Justice, Queen's Law Journal and University of British Columbia Law Review, to name a few.

Prior to enrolling at UAlberta Law, Fehr completed his LLM (with a focus on criminal law theory as it relates to constitutionalism) at the University of Toronto under professor Kent Roach, and before that a JD and BA (with a political science major and a Russian language minor) at the University of Saskatchewan.

After practicing law for two years in Saskatchewan, both as a Crown prosecutor and a law clerk, Fehr decided that he had more to offer the law profession - and the greater community - as an academic.

"By writing on controversial and timely issues, I hope to be able to influence the development of the law in a way I often felt was impossible when practicing," he said, adding his practical experience has proven invaluable to his scholarship.

"I was once told by a professor that practice grounds you, and he was right," said Fehr.